As legend has it, in 1790, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison attended a dinner at which they discussed the onerous debt burden of several northern states from the Revolutionary War. Hamilton proposed that the new federal government absorb the debts of those states. Jefferson, representing the view of the Southern states, was not very sympathetic because they were debt free. They also feared an expansive federal government, on which the states would begin to rely for support.
In their wisdom, three of our founding fathers arrived at a precedent-setting solution: Congress would assume the debt of the northern states by passing the Absorption Act, and in return the Capitol of the United States would be located in the south by the Potomac River in Virginia. Thus, one could say that Washington D.C., was the first of what has been commonly referred to since as “pork, earmarks and projects.”
I will refer to them as “projects” and will define them as being when the costs of any program or building in a specified and limited area are spread out among taxpayers beyond the geographical confines of that program.
This is topical because of Gov. Rick Scott’s veto of more than $450 million of what he claimed were wasteful legislative projects. A recent Herald editorial wisely noted that some these projects were worthy and others were actually statewide in nature. For example: Scott vetoed a statewide increase for underpaid pediatric physicians; closer to home, he vetoed $1 million for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.
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I contend that projects, with the exception of notable excesses like the Alaska “bridge to nowhere,” perform a useful purpose in the legislative process, as well as enhance the quality of life for many people.
Two myths should be dispelled: First, the sum total of earmarks in any federal or state budget is very small, so eliminating them has a negligible impact on government’s overall finances. Second, legislators and voters love earmarks. Voters love to see politicians cut ribbons on a new bridge, highway or building or serve food to the homeless through a new state program. To them, it’s evidence that their politicians are doing something tangible.
Opponents of earmarks like to say that when politicians earmark money, it is too political and that bureaucrats would do it in a more-meritorious process. This assumes that there are no politics in the bureaucracy and that bureaucrats have more wisdom in determining which projects are most worthy. Both are bad assumptions.
Politicians say they know their districts and the people’s priorities best of all. There is truth in this. The bureaucracy can be too removed from public needs in ways that are both insensitive and unimaginative. With their attuned antennae, politicians are more exposed to the needs and imaginative programs that are percolating in America’s communities.
Still, there is room for both to play a role. When Jeb Bush was governor, he rightly articulated the best ideas started at the grassroots level and not at the state level. Unfortunately, in his first budget he promptly vetoed local projects and empowered the executive branch.
Finally, funding local projects greases the wheels of the legislative process. America’s transportation infrastructure is deteriorating, and the Highway Re-authorization Act is needed to fund infrastructure needs. Congress has not been able to pass a meaningful highway bill since the elimination of earmarks.
Notwithstanding excesses that must be eliminated through transparency and public scrutiny, earmarks do several things: They fund worthy projects in the communities (think the tunnel to PortMiami) and they give legislators a means to horse-trade and then unify around a big bill. By bringing home these projects, legislators then have cover for the difficult votes, such as a gas-tax increase to fund the country’s infrastructure needs.
It is not always a pretty process, but you can’t take the politics out of the system and, for the most part, it has worked. Throughout our history, federal and state legislative earmarks have funded iconic projects such as the Cuban Museum, the Arsht Center, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and AIDS programs at Jackson Memorial Hospital, to name a few. They have added to the fabric of our community while, at the federal level, helped get passed funding bills that benefit the whole country.
Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, a former state legislator and currently a policy adviser to Ballard Partners.